Friday 23rd June 2017
It had been a long time since my last trip to Beamish Museum. I could barely remember the museum, yet I had fond memories of visiting there on school trips when I was much younger. Due to visiting at such a young age, I was never aware of the archive that was stored within Beamish Museum. I was oozing with anticipation as we arrived at the Resource Centre. It was a lovely building, that appeared small in stature.
Stepping into the reception, we were greeted by a gentleman named Julian Harrop. After talking for some time about the WYWY project, Julian led us into the archive room, and I could never have imagined what faced me as we stepped through.
The Archive Rooms
In the first room, there were several bookshelves that stood like giants over me. Craning my neck, I could not see what resided on the top shelves of these ginormous bookshelves. Julian indicated where the coal mining information was stored and allowed us to browse through the binds for a few moments. There were books that were falling apart with age, covers peeling from its binds, bent and ragged with the tough love of time. Others lay almost pristine, untouched by age.
Overwhelming. The sheer amount of information stored was unbelievable, as we were told that there were around 50,000 books in the archive and 2,500 on coal mining alone. With so many books it would have been impossible to not find the information we were looking for.
We then had another surprise, as he guided some of the WYWY steering committee through two more rooms like the previous ones. This time, they were stocked high with artefacts ranging from several different eras. One row housed miner’s equipment, paintings, statues and household items from the 20th century. Due to my captivation in fine art, my eyes locked onto the paintings and statues on display.
A miner, jutting from the canvas, had caught my eye. Made of leather, this art piece was beautiful, and took clear care and patience to create. A miner’s creation. Still. Standing strong on display. Another painting of a colliery, made of watercolour paints, stood out beautifully, attractive to the eye, using ink to outline the shapes. Yet another sketch, made from charcoal. Another of ink. A wooden statue, carved with careful chips of a miner’s tools, revealing a miner holding his lamp in front of himself. It was interesting to think that this was just a hobby for the miners, who spent 12 hours in the caverns, striking against the earth with their tools. To then leave that world and sit in tranquil peace, painting or sculpting.
Julian informed me that there were more items stored away, made by coal mining artists. Original sketchbooks with unfinished works by Norman Cornish, a local artist. I was informed that I could hold these sketchbooks, flick through them, see how these men thought and felt through their art. Unfortunately, I could not see these sketches on the day, however I look forward to returning to the archives and studying their art more thoroughly.
I then returned to the books to see what was available. Along with the books compiled of the machinery and ventilation in shafts (practical books written to inform miners and work-men) there were also books which held poems, quotes and short stories written by miners, about mines. The author of the book, Charles Bister, had compiled the collection and published his book in 1972. The poems he wrote captured the life and essence of miners. The literacy works were thought provoking and were certainly worth the read, though I had little time to read through all the short stories. I would love to continue reading them, as they were intriguing pieces and there was some lovely artwork to go with it.
I also found a book entitled “Coal Miner’s Pocketbook” which was written in 1928. I noticed the bind of the book jutting from the shelf. The word which caught my eye was “pocketbook” as I found it interesting that the miners would own personal books, and I was intrigued to see what information was stored inside its pages. I opened the book and found a name scrawled on the first page. The book was signed on the 16/06/1928 by a man named A. C. Barr. Such a personal signature on the book felt like I was delving into a private piece of literature. It felt so real, to imagine the man who owned this book, who had read through its pages. Pages filled with facts about mining, key words and rules. Several diagrams and tables backed the facts within the pages and added variety to its contents.
I flicked through more books that held pictures of miners, maps and a full book strewn with facts and images regarding the pit ponies. After a while of browsing the contents of these books, I quickly placed them back in their places on the shelves and decided to interview Julian regarding his role in the Beamish Museum and its archives.
Interviewing an Archivist
Julian was welcoming and quickly accommodated, allowing us to film an interview with him. I had the privilege to interview this wonderful gentleman and after we had greeted I asked him about his life within archiving. I asked such questions as; how he had gotten into that line of work, what it was like to work within such a massive collection of artefacts, how to engage young people within heritage. Then I listened with tentative ears as he recalled his time in the museum.
Starting with archiving photographs, Julian began his work at Beamish in the 80s, and recalled that the number of images being stored within the computer ranged within 500,000. It holds such an impressive collection of imagery in which almost all the originals can still be handled. Each image is scanned through the computer and uploaded onto their electronic archive named “Peoples Collection” for the public to view.
The team operating within the archives are only small, consisting of around four to seven people at a time, who organise through the fields of items in the museum. At the time of the interview they were organising items in correlation with an event which would be commencing soon, and had impressively filed through half of the items needed within just a few days.
He then recalled his time as an actor within the museum and interacting with the students. He explained that to truly feel part of the scene, he would often rub dirt or coal on his face. Some of the actors preferred to stay clean, however he felt that the realism of the museum is only amplified through becoming part of the character.
After discussing further about his experience within the museum, my final question regarded captivating the interest of younger people, and how to get them involved in the museum. The answer was to find something they were interested in. There is an unlimited amount of possibilities within history, so whether they enjoyed the calm and tranquil or the grotesquely gruesome, there should be something the student enjoys. He explained that the museum offers volunteer work for the students, as well as work experience for those in older years. There is always spaces available for those who are interested in applying.
I feel like the afternoon of archiving was very successful. I learnt not only more about mining, but more about how an archivers job works. It gave me more appreciation for the roles associated with the museum and the sheer mountainous size of the archive made it clear just how important their roles are within the workplace.
However, as well as this, I discovered more information regarding the artists of the coal mines including writers and fine artists. It has inspired me to create my own work, taking aspects and inspirations from what I find.